THE WORLD OF BODY
Women about to bathe, bronze mirror cover
Hera, goddess of marriage and the ability to procreate,
and Venus, goddess of the youthful and virginal beauty that attracts the male
gaze and gives sexual pleasure, symbolize the twin cultural
expectations of women's bodies. Roman history bears witness to the fact
that women's bodies were not their own but, lying at the intersection of public
interest as they did, were constitutionally entrusted to males to regulate and
administer for the good of the state. Body is at the crux of male and female
biological and cultural difference, thus setting conservative gender and sex
roles and ideals. Numerous examples testify to the impact of the
female body on civic well being: the rape of the Sabine women and its result in
new citizens; the rape of Lucretia which ended the monarchy; the arranged
marriage of Julia which brought Caesar and Pompey into alliance while her death
in childbirth, an event all too common in antiquity, allowed it to dissolve.
Women's health and the practice of medicine in connection with
pregnancy and birth were significant areas of concern for
Roman men, as the occupation of midwifery and extant gynecological
writings demonstrate. Augustus proposed laws that awarded
coveted personal and civic privileges to women who produced three children. Seneca (c. 4 BCE–65 CE) praises his mother for being unashamed of her fertility, unlike most women of the time who hid the effect of pregnancy on their appearance or resorted to abortion (ad Helviam 16.3). Tacitus (56–117 CE), contrasting the common practice of Roman mothers, at least among the upper classes, of giving their newborn children to wet-nurses, praises German women for breast-feeding their own children (Germania 20). In matters of adornment and
dress, women claimed the right of visual
self-expression from the time of their fierce opposition to the 2nd century BCE
Oppian law, a regulation limiting women's public display. Beginning with Livia and Octavia, imperial women set the fashion for hairstyles for women of all classes to imitate, as funerary monuments demonstrate. Although in practice women gained greater control over their persons and
destiny during the Empire, before the law their bodies remained subject to male
oversight. For further information see Sebesta (2001), Flemming (2000), Kapparis (2001) in
the Bibliography; see also Stephens' Ancient Hairstyles Recreation and
Images of Body below.
|| Additional Readings
Noctes Atticae 12.1-21 (excerpts): breast feeding
||See the Latin reader
The Worlds of Roman Women for the following
Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.5.1-5, 9:
Julia, daughter of Augustus
||Aulus Cornelius Celsus,
De Medicina 2, 4 (excerpts): women's medicine
|Publius Ovidius Naso,
Marcia, cousin of Augustus
||C. Plinius Secundus
(maior), Naturalis Historia 28.20-23 (excerpts): the powers of female
|Publius Papinius Statius,
Silvae 1.2. 105-122, 138-140:
Epithalamion for Stella and Violentilla
||Valerius Maximus, Facta
et Dicta Memorabilia 4.6.4: Julia's death in childbirth
|Publius Ovidius Naso, Ars Amatoria III.281-310: advice for girls
||C. Plinius Caecilius
Secundus (minor), Epistulae 8.10: Calpurnia's miscarriage
||Incertus Auctor, De
Sulpicia Elegiae 1: at the festival of Mars
|T. Maccius Plautus,
Epidicus 221-234: wearing her fortune
||T. Lucretius Carus, De
Rerum Natura 4.1278-87: pretty is as pretty does
||T. Livius, Ab Urbe
Condita 4.44: a Vestal regrets
IMAGES of BODY
Matrona, a full-size marble statue of an idealized woman, heavily draped and modestly wearing the strapped, floor-length stola of the married Roman woman. Her hairstyle suggests a date in the late 1st century BCE/early 1st century CE. Rome, Vatican museum (Gregoriano Profano).
- Stola: onyx cameo bust of a woman dressed in the garment of the
matrona (the straps of the stola are carefully carved), 90-100
CE. London, British Museum.
woman in a fresco wearing a diadem and veil in an opulent setting; her
servant stands attentive beside her (perhaps a scene from the myth of Phaedra
with her nurse). From Pompeii (?), 20-60 CE. London. British Museum.
- Woman reclining on the lid of a marble sarcophagus sculpted to look like a lectus (bed) as though she fell asleep. She is fully clothed and her hair is styled in the fashion of the Empress Faustina (d. 140 CE); she holds a pomegranate (?) and two small Erotes lie at her head and feet holding garlands. The painted inscription is modern. Rome, Vatican museum (Chiaramonte).
- Girl wearing
a Greek chiton (dress) and wrapped in a himation (cloak) (Greek clothing); a copy in marble of a Hellenistic
original. Rome: Museo Montemartini.
Seianti, an Etruscan aristocrat, wearing a long dress with a fringed
gold belt, wrapped in a cloak and veiled (Etruscan dress); she reclines on the
lid of a marble sarcophagos. From Chiusi, first half of 2nd century BCE.
Florence, Archaeological Museum.
on a marble funerary sculpture, identified as such by her belted stola
over her tunic and draped palla; she wears a veil with a diadem,
signifying her deification, a common element in women's grave statues during the Empire.
2nd quarter of 2nd century CE. Oxford, Ashmolean.
woman enveloped in a Greek himation (cloak), wearing a
Roman copy of a Hellenistic Greek work. 1/2nd century CE. NY: Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
- Regilla or Tunica Recta: drawing of the garment worn by a Roman bride on her wedding day; it was woven in the traditional way, in one piece at an upright loom. Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities. 1898.
- Modern Reconstructions
- Toga Praetexta: the clothing displayed here was typically worn by elite young girls before their marriage. It is
modeled on the Augustan relief of the child depicted on the Ara Pacis. She wears a white tunic bound
with a cingulum tied in a nodus Herculaneus beneath the toga.
From an image supplied by Judith Sebesta of a student in a course (late
- Bride: the model wears the outfit worn by an elite young woman at her wedding. She wears a corona of flowers, a saffron
flammeum, yellow socci, a white tunica recta, bound with a
cingulum tied in a nodus Herculaneus. Pliny says the bride's
hairnet (not visible) was egg-yolk colored and dyed with luteum ( it
yields a deep yellow dye) and that the flammeum was also dyed with
luteum; however, a scholiast on Juvenal likens the flammeum to
the blush of a bride. From an image supplied by Judith Sebesta of a student in
a course (late 1990's).
- Matrona: this is the type of outfit that would have been worn
by a married woman. She wears a a turquoise tunic beneath a white stola that is
bound with a cingulum tied in a nodus Herculaneus; she is cloaked
by a teal palla with which she might cover her hair and even face. From an image
supplied by Judith Sebesta of a student in a course (late 1990's).
- Widow: this is the kind of dress that a vidua would wear: a black tunic, bound with a cingulum tied in a
nodus Herculaneus, beneath the recinium (a square veil with a
purple stripe along one edge, worn by women in times of mourning). From an image supplied and modeled by
Judith Sebesta (late 1990's).
- Veiled portrait
head in marble of a mature woman (matrona or Vestal?) with a
stern expression, wearing a headband under her veil and a band incised around
her throat (side view). Roman, 49 BCE. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Bust in marble of a mature Roman woman with a late Republican
hairstyle, loosely wrapped in a palla. Rome, Vatican Museum
head in marble of a woman with a hair arrangement
of the late Republican period (side). Said to be one of the ladies of Cleopatra VII's court who went with her to Rome in 46 BCE.
Italy 80-40 BCE.London, British Museum.
- Bust in marble
of a female resembling Augustus' daughter Julia; her hairstyle,
similar to Livia's and Octavia's, dates the bust to end 1st Century BCE. Rome: Museo
portrait of a woman whose hairstyle places her in the Augustan period (late BCE-earlyCE). Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale.
- Portrait heads from the early imperial period showing the varied hairstyles; elite women often adopted styles of their empresses (see State images). Rome, Vatican Museum.
- Portrait head on a on a cameo pendant; the hairstyle is that of
Antonia Minor (36 BCE-37CE), wife of Tiberius' brother Drusus. Roman,
Julio-Claudian period. Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.
- Vibia Drosis, freedwoman of C. Vibius Felix, is depicted with a Flavian hairstyle on this marble stele that she dedicated to herself and her heirs (inscription; AE 1992.202-204). Rome, Flavian period (69-80 CE). New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Marble Head of an aristocratic young woman of the Flavian period. Late 1st century. Rome, Capitoline Museum.
- Portrait bust of a mature aristocratic woman in marble, possibly Domitia, wife of Domitian. Her hairstyle (side view) was popular during the Flavian/Trajanic period (69-117 CE). San Antonio, Texas: San Antonio Museum.
- Matrona with a Flavian hairstyle looks on as a sculptor works on a portrait funeral stele on this marble funerary altar. Vatican Museum: Candelabra corridor.
- Portrait of Cominia Tyche with a Flavian hairstyle; Gaius Lucius Festus dedicated this marble altar to his deceased 27 year old wife. CIL VI.16054. Roman, 90-100 CE. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
bust in marble of a woman with a tall hair arrangement of tight curls piled high in the front and a braid wound into a bun in back (side view).
Late Flavian. Copenhagen, NY Carlsberg Glyptotek.
- Portrait bust in marble of Staia Quinta with an elaborate hairstyle of cascading curls. From the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi. 1st century CE. Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.
- Portrait head in marble of a young woman with an elaborate hairstyle of curls and braids. From the Sanctuary of Diana at Nemi. 1st century CE. Copenhagen: Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.
Olympias wears an elaborate three-tiered
fringed hairstyle with braids in the back of this marble portrait bust (see the memorial
dedication in Class). Roman, 100-150
CE. London, British Museum.
- Mummy portrait of Isidora (Gift of Isis), whose hair arrangement as well as her jewelry and costly fabrics indicate her wealth and status. Painted linen on wood. Roman, from Egypt, 100-110 CE. Malibu, Getty Villa.
- Head in marble, labeled as a portrait of Matidia I (right side,
From Via Giolitti. c. 119 CE. Rome, Capitoline Museums .
of the Empress Sabina showing the elaborately waved, fringed, and
braided coiffure that required the labor and skills of slaves to
achieve. 130-40 CE. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
- Head of
a young woman whose braided hairdo imitates Faustina the Elder's (side).
Roman, Antonine period (138-161 CE). NY Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Head of a young woman whose hairstyle in marble resembles that of Faustina the
Elder on coins of 140-50 CE, with braids wound around her head (side 1,
Roman. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
bust in marble of a woman associated with the imperial family,
displaying the complex hairstyle of the Antonine women. Roman. c. 180-200 CE.
London: British Museum.
torso of a young girl wearing over her own hair a wig styled like the
Empress Julia Domna's hair and a Greek chiton and
cloak. Roman, 210-30 CE. London, British Museum.
bust in marble of a young woman with an elaborate hairdo. From Aquileia. 3rd century CE. Copenhagen, Glyptoteck Carlsbad.
- Hair Decorations
- Hairnet Fittings in gold (with reconstruction drawing) for a woman's hairnet. Vallerano Tomb 2-4. Imperial age. Rome, Olearia. Hairnet fragment reconstructed on a frame (see Sappho fresco from Pompeii). From a tomb
at Vetralla, Imperial period. Rome, Museo Massimo. Hairnet woven with gold thread. From the Via Tiburtina, Imperial period. Rome, Museo Massimo.
- Bone hairpin decorated at the top with the heads of a couple (woman's head missing). Imperial period. Rome, Museo Massimo.
- Reconstructions of the Hairstyles of Imperial Women
- Janet Stephens' Ancient Hairstyles Recreation illustrates the hairstyles of imperial women (Livia, Octavia, Agrippina Minor, Faustina Maior and Minor, Julia Domna, and Plautilla) and the Vestal Virgins through artifacts and reconstructions in image and video.
- Snake bracelet of gold, inscribed DOM[i]NVS ANCILLAE SVAE (the master to his
slave girl); it was on the arm of a woman found in a building in Agro Murecine
near Pompeii; she was carrying other jewelry and coins. Roman, 1st century
CE. Naples, Archaeological Museum.
armband of gold. Late 4th-2nd century BCE. Rome,
pendant with glass beads and cameos carved with the faces of (family?)
children. Roman, from an eastern province. 3rd century CE. London, Victoria
& Albert Museum.
- Diadem of gold filigree in the Persian style. The headband has attachments of flaming torches, closed by a Herakles knot with tassels ending in gemstone beads. Greek, from Alexandria, Egypt, 220-100 BCE. Malibu, J. Paul Getty Museum.
- Terracotta jewelry on a life-size bust of a young Etruscan woman; the pieces may have been molded on actual jewels. Late 4-early 3rd
century BCE. NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- Gold and Gemstones: a collection of Roman jewelry from the 1-4th centuries CE. London, Victoria & Albert Museum.
- Cameo brooch of sardonyx encircled in gold, carved with a profile portrait of a woman
resembling Agrippina the Elder, mother of Caligula; the absence of imperial
insignia suggests she is a private noblewoman. Roman, 30-40 CE. London: British
- Bracelets and earrings formed of hollow hemispheres of gold, a type of jewelry
invented by the Romans and common in this period. Pompeii, 1st century CE.
Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
earrings in gold; a smaller
pair hold a sword and wreath in each hand, reversed. From Bolsena (made
in Taranto), 4th-3rd century BCE. London, British Museum.
- Crown of gold leaves and rosettes, used for banquet/funerary purposes; a tipsy
stands crowned at the center with a jug and libation dish. South Italy, 250-200 BCE. London, British Museum.
portrait of Isidora (gift of Isis), pictured wearing
gold-bordered fabrics, a gold-leaf diadem and gold necklaces and earrings
tastefully set with pearls and gems. Linen on wood. Roman, from Egypt, 100-110 CE. Malibu,
box in wood, restored with lid, bronze fittings and figured relief
carvings in bone, for toilette articles. 1st century CE. Naples, National
girl filling a perfume vial from an
aryballos; veiled and seated, she wears bracelets, earings,
delicate sandals, and a gauzy peplos. A fragment of a wall fresco from a house near the Tiber now destroyed. End 1st century BCE.
Rome, Museo Massimo.
- Woman with
flask, a full-length marble statue of a woman wearing a peplos and
holding a glass perfume flask. Ostia, c. 30 CE. Rome, Vatican Museum.
- Mirror with a relief on the back in silver showing Phrixus on the Golden Fleeced
ram's back, fleeing to Colchis and carrying his sister Helle. From a tomb at
Vetralla, Imperial period. Rome, Museo Massimo.
medallion in gilded silver relief showing the goddess at her toilette,
assisted by her son Eros and a young
serving girl. It is incised around the rim with various symbols
associated with love and beauty, such as a fan, a flower, a butterfly, a bird,
grasshopper, and lyre. Taranto, 300-200 BCE London, British Museum.
BODY AND HEALTH
- Hygeia, the deity in charge of good health, wears a headdress with fillets; the small bronze figurine holds a snake on her right arm and in her
left hand a libation dish. Roman, 1st century CE. London, British Museum.
- Models of the female body in terracotta: 1. Eye, 2. Uterus, 3. Ear, 4. Breast, 5.
Intestines. In Greece and Rome replicas of body parts were often dedicated in
shrines of healing gods in thanks for or hopes of a cure. Roman, 3-1st century
BCE. London, British Museum.
- Bathers are depicted on this gilt bronze mirror back, standing before an iconic statuette of Venus, the goddess of fertility.
2nd century CE . Boston, Museum of Fine Arts.
- Women's dressing
room with a small cold plunge in the public Sabian Baths. Pompeii, 1st
athlete forming the handle of a bronze
view), herself holding a
strigil. Etruscan, found in a sarcophagus from Praeneste (Palestrina),
c. 300 BCE. London, British Museum.
- Women exercising on a floor mosaic of a small room in the Villa Romana del Casale. Early 4th century CE. Piazza Armerina, Sicily.
- Scene of childbirth in relief on an ivory plaque attached to one end of a papyrus winder (a roller for holding the papyrus while reading). The pregnant woman sits on a birthing chair. Behind her, a standing woman holds her steady as she lifts her left arm backwards to grasp the attendant. The midwife kneels in front of the mother with a sponge in her right hand. Behind her stands a veiled woman who extends her hands toward the mother. While this appears to be a scene from daily life, the relief at the other end of the winder shows three men lifting the body of a fallen companion, suggesting that the pair illustrate the birth and death of a mythological hero. Roman. From Pompeii, Region I, Insula 2, first century CE. Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
mother seated on a marble relief holding her infant; standing beside her
is a male (husband?) and a veiled woman in a headdress (a priestess?) reaching toward the
child ; the temple in the background suggests a ritual ceremony. Imperial
period. Rome, Vatican Museum.
- Nursing woman, a terracotta statuette, probably a votive in hope of/ thanksgiving for a successful childbirth. Roman, from near the military camp in Pförring, Bavaria. Munich, Archäologische Staatssammlung, 2nd century CE
- Child's first bath is depicted on one side of the marble sarcophagus for a dead child. The nurse lifts the baby who has just been born, while his mother, supported after the birth by a female servant, watches. Roman, second century CE. Agrigento, Museo Archeologico Regionale.
- Baby's bath: the mother sits before the nurse washing her baby, but her eyes are on the women ploting his life course; marble panel from the side of a biographical sarcophagus. Rome, 160-80 CE. Los Angeles, County Museum of Art (LACMA).
- Statue in marble of a seated woman in voluminous robes and crowned (a
goddess?), nursing an infant. Late Hellenistic period. Rome, Vatican
portrayed on a funerary relief; a medical family freed by a member of the
gens Clodia whose names are inscribed below: (center) CLODIVS METRODORVS
MEDICVS; (right) CLODIA HILARA; (left) CLODIVS TERTIVS MEDICVS. Last 3rd of 1st
century BCE. Paris, Louvre Museum.
Silphium, a wild member of the fennel
family, is pictured on a bronze didrachma of Cyrene, whose economy was
dependent on export of this herb (found growing in few places and extinct since
the 3/4th century CE). Used for seasoning and medicine (a close equivalent was
the native Roman plant asafoetida). Soranus, 2nd century CE physician, claims
women had a special recipe (see Riddle, Contraception) for its use in
terminating pregnancy. 300-260 BCE. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum.
- Pomegranate (seeded apple) carries opposing symbolic
associations: it is at once the fruit of life/paradise (associated with
fertility) and found in funeral rituals (mythic associations with Persephone
and Hera). Eaten as a fruit, it was the source of red dye and used medicinally
(known today as a “superfruit” for its beneficial properties). Originated in
Persia and brought in ancient times to the Mediterranean area.
All images are courtesy of the
VRoma Project's Image Archive.